‘Are you wearing an AirPod?’ my friend Eleanor* asked me incredulously. ‘Are you here with me or not?’
I was on holiday with her, and we were about to board a ferry.
Although we had spoken at length about a huge variety of topics in the three weeks we’d already spent together, it was natural there were going to be silences.
Silences I preferred to fill with music.
It didn’t mean I was being rude or blocking Eleanor out, as she seemed to think. I could hear her perfectly fine with my one free ear.
But listening to music is my way of dealing with my anxiety and intrusive thoughts – something I have always struggled with.
This time, I was worrying about the unusual amount of freckles on my arms. I couldn’t remember if they had always been there.
‘What does melanoma look like?’ my thoughts raced desperately.
I couldn’t shake the intense feeling of panic. It was like a gradual anxiety attack; I was fixated on something going wrong.
I first learned about my anxiety in my early twenties when my doctor suggested I might have hypochondria. I used to go to my GP every month, swearing I was ill, even thinking I’d caught an STI after every sexual encounter.
I’d worry about anything on my skin, obsess over vanity (like thinking my front teeth had moved), and couldn’t stop fixating on the smallest of problems.
Of course, I’d typically be wrong, and everything was fine.
I began to restrict check-ups to every three months to better myself, and I learned to confide in my best friends to stop me from spiralling.
Anxiety was exhausting because I lost my ability to enjoy the present for no reason besides the fact that my mind couldn’t stop worrying too much about problems that never existed.
I‘ve always been the type of person who wouldn’t walk down the street without listening to music, and around 2016 realised it was during my strolls that I felt most mentally at peace.
I began to listen to music more and more, using an Airpod and Spotify playlist to help navigate those days I felt anxiety coming to the surface.
Rather than let paranoid thoughts snowball enough to the point I would need to vent to friends, I did my best to tackle them with one of my many playlists, depending on the occasion.
Music had a way of redirecting my thoughts from the proverbial monsters under the bed into the present moment, perhaps for the same reason that it helps someone focus on a workout.
No mental intrusion could distract from the genius of Incubus or James Blunt.
I didn’t completely understand my anxiety then, only what worked to diffuse its extreme moments of anguish, where my thoughts raced over worse-case scenarios. Still, I was repeatedly calling friends for reassurance – asking them whether I’d gained weight, or whether they thought my boss would be mad at me for an imagined slight.
It wasn’t until a friend confronted me about behaving like a narcissist because I couldn’t stop talking about my speculative problems that I realised I had to keep music on hand all the time.
I decided I would pop one Airpod in when out with friends and I felt like my anxiety was going to bubble over and interrupt our conversation.
Listening to music on a minimal volume reinvigorated my ability to enjoy outings, and I don’t think it gets in the way of things, just as a restaurant or coffee shop playing music doesn’t impede on laughs and conversation.
I had told Eleanor about my anxiety previously, and she said she understood, but she didn’t seem to comprehend how my one headphone helped me. Instead, she thought it rude.
Other friends have felt the same as Eleanor, insisting that my Airpod is impolite, like when I went on another trip abroad, with my friend Olivia* and her boyfriend.
They commented how weird it was that I tuned myself out with music, but I thought it was OK because we were in an Uber, and I was sitting in the front.
We went hiking that same trip, and I wrongfully assumed outdoor exercise was fair game for music.
Frankly, I didn’t know what the big deal was; the Airpod didn’t make me any less present.
In some way, I can understand where my friends are coming from. They think my music put us on different levels of consciousness; it’s true, a great song has a way of taking you to another feeling, another memory.
But I try my best to pick music that will only help me get through the situation rather than taking away from our time together, and I always leave one ear open as a way of leaving my foot on the ground.
I don’t pretend to understand the science of why music helps calm my anxiety, all I know is, it works for me. I’ve been a fan ever since I accessed an iPod. I escape my body and mind without running away from life – or relying on drugs.
I’ve done therapy – I’ve taken medication. But for me, that one ear of calming sounds works best for getting on top of my symptoms.
I wouldn’t dream of telling anybody else how to cope with mental health issues – that’s up to you and your doctor.
After being presumed disrespectful for my actions, I’ve learned to tell friends I’d rather keep my AirPod in in advance.
‘Music helps me stay present, but don’t worry, I can hear you,’ I’ll explain. And I can – one ear might be for music, but the other is listening.
You don’t need to explain your mental health to everyone, but close friends and family are good places to start.
My friend Ashley recently invited me to a gig. On our walk there, it began to pour. She noticed my Airpod. ‘Do you mind if I put music on too?’
Of course, I said that was no problem.
I’ve come to enjoy keeping one ear on the outside world, so I left mine as is. Sprinting under the moonlight and dodging the heavy rain, we ultimately ran in the same music video but to different soundtracks. When we arrived, she took off both earphones to focus on checking in.
I still kept one in.
*Names have been changed
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